Four Bulgarians and the great American roadtrip.
April 17, 2009 7:05 PM   Subscribe

Help me plan a family road trip from Houston, TX to Seattle, WA. How to get a cheaper rental car, should we go to Monument Valley, and a bunch of other questions.

My family (50-year-old dad and possibly mom, 30-year-old sister and 25-year-old me) will be reunited in June for the first time in six years, and we will be driving from Texas to Seattle over the course of ten days. My sister will be visiting from Bulgaria, and she hasn't been to many places in the US, so I'd like to show her as many amazing sights as possible.

At the end of the trip, everyone other than me will be flying back to Houston, TX, so we are renting a car. However, picking it up at an airport in Texas and returning it in Seattle really hikes up the price of rentals, and I couldn't find any places that will let us drop it off at a non-airport address. Do you have any advice as to how we can get the best deal?

This is the tentative route we have planned. We've already booked lodging in Grand Canyon and Yosemite, but everything else is subject to change. Would you advise us to go check out other places, too?

Is it worth visiting Monument Valley? Nobody mentioned it in this previous thread. The surreal photos I have seen certainly make it look incredible, but is there anything to do there? As in, can we hike in the middle of June, or will it be too hot?

Should we spend a night in Napa Valley (if so, where exactly should we stay) or continue on to Portland (presumably at least one of us avid wine drinkers will be sober enough to drive at that point)? What is there to do or see on the San Francisco, CA to Portland, OR stretch?

I've never been in a car for an entire ten days. What should we be prepared for? Are we going to end up hating each other (we get along pretty well, but even better when we are on different continents or coasts), and what could we do to be better prepared?
posted by halogen to Travel & Transportation (11 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
 
I worked for a summer in Zion National Park in southern UT some decades ago, and really recommend seeing both Zion and Bryce Canyons if you're in the area. Monument Valley has amazing vistas, but Zion puts you right IN the bottom of this really tall canyon, and Bryce Canyon puts you up on top looking at rock formations. They are very close together and could easily be accomplished in a day or two.

Neither of these are "drive through" visits. They might fit with your travel plans, but visiting them likely won't move you closer to your destination. They're pretty amazing places, however, and I really recommend them above Monument Valley.
posted by hippybear at 7:23 PM on April 17, 2009


Monument valley is iconic. It might very well make you cry from recognition. You can pay a nominal (10/person) and drive through it, but to be there at sunset, you must pay a guide (expensive). As a photographer, it was worth it to me.

However, I'd like to second what hippybear said. Another option, and one that tends to blow people's minds, is Antelope Canyon in Page, AZ. Look it up. It really looks like that. However, you want to be there a) around midday b) during the week; else there will be too many damn people.
posted by notsnot at 7:32 PM on April 17, 2009


I took a similar road trip a few years ago. If you get along well with your family already, you'll probably be fine. The main problem we had was if someone was hungry or tired, they were a lot more likely to complain about one thing or another.

Here are some general tips for making a long car trip easier:
- Put together a simple kit that includes first aid, picnic supplies, and cleaning items. Take a good 5-6" serrated kitchen knife, something like this one from OXO. It's no fun trying to cut a bagel with a pocket knife! A small cutting board is also good to have.
- Bring water bottles and fill them up before you head out each morning.
- Have everyone help clean out any trash from the car each time you stop for gas. It's a lot easier to take care of this at a gas station that it is to bring trash into your hotel room or find trash cans somewhere else along the way.
- Take along healthy snacks like apples and almonds.
- You can also usually stop by a grocery store to pick up a simple lunch or dinner. Eating out at restaurants gets old really fast! The best is if you can find a hotel that has a microwave. Then everyone can pick out a frozen lean cuisine or similar boxed dinner at the store and heat it up at the hotel, then hang out together and watch a movie. Another meal/snack idea is to pick up apples, cheddar cheese, and a baguette at the store and make a simple picnic lunch.
- Have the person in the passenger seat search through for unusual radio stations. It can be entertaining and you might even find a great radio show along the way.
- Bring several gallon size ziploc bags, which are very useful and don't take up much space.
- Don't forget your sunglasses. Get a few extra cheap ones if your relatives don't have them.

Car rental: I don't know that much, but don't be afraid to call around or even call the main number if you've mainly been looking online. Another tip is that some rental companies offer discounts (for Hertz or Avis for example) if you're an AAA member or if you're a member of a rewards program (Marriott Rewards is one I've seen a lot with Hertz rentals - sometimes a 20% discount on a car).

Suggestions for stops near your route: You might consider adding a detour around Portland to see the coast, maybe stopping to see Cannon Beach? Might be too rainy, though, but it's beautiful and unique no matter what. If you do go that route and end up in Astoria, Oregon, I've stayed at the Hotel Elliott often and have had a great experience there. It's a small town but a great last stop on your way to Seattle.

Sorry I can't say much about hotels along your route as I mostly stayed at Motel 6's (not recommended!). I'd suggest staying overnight nearby when you stop in the Napa Valley, though, if you're planning on doing any tourist activities. I stayed in Santa Rosa on my way up the coast, which was pretty easy and inexpensive compared to anything closer to San Francisco. Staying at a hotel like a Hilton Garden Inn or Fairfield Inn would be easy and generally affordable.
posted by belau at 9:45 PM on April 17, 2009


Seconding Zion National Park. The Grand Canyon is very grandcanyony, but you glance at it and immediately know how it got to be there. Then you go to Zion and you say "How the hell...? This is not possible."
posted by neuron at 10:08 PM on April 17, 2009


Monument Valley is beautiful. If you're going to be out that way, though, there's also Four Corners (tourist trap but neat), Canyon de Chelly (gorgeous), and Lake Powell (wowza.) Monument Valley will probably be pretty hot that time of year, possibly over 100 degrees, so hiking may be out. I'm not sure that the Navajo Nation permits hiking there anyway. Yeah, it's a dry heat, but you'd be astounded at how fast that dry heat cooks you and sucks the moisture out of you. Also remember that the lower elevations out that way are 5000 feet, so you're going to be dealing with altitude if you're going to be doing any physical exertion.

Have you considered Mesa Verde? It is possibly the most fascinating national park there is. I've been there a few times (sister lives right outside the park) and the more I learn, the more I want to know. Also, where are you going to stay at the Grand Canyon - south or north rim? If you have a choice, go for the north. More out of the way, less crowded, and beautiful. Not that the south rim isn't beautiful, though - my wife, who was of the "it's just a big hole in the ground" belief, stopped talking mid-syllable when she got her first brief glimpse on the road to the visitor center. It took her a minute to get her jaw off the floor. Don't let anyone sell the Canyon short.

Most importantly, remember to stay hydrated out this way. Cannot overstate that one.
posted by azpenguin at 11:39 PM on April 17, 2009


I strongly recommend you spend some extra time to get away from I-5 and take the 101 up the Oregon coast for a while. It is an insanely beautiful drive.
posted by martens at 3:34 AM on April 18, 2009


If you're from Texas, you should already have a handle on one of the things that many people don't realize about driving in the American West: it's BIG. Just "driving through" Monument Valley takes hours and hours, and that's after hours of driving to get there. Mesa Verde is astonishing, fascinating, etc. but you need a full day, minimum, to see it -- it's not something you swing off the freeway, take a look at, and leave after an hour. And the "Napa Valley or go on to Portand" question? It's a long, hard drive up I-5 from Northern California to get to Portland in one day. It's nearly impossible to just swing over to the coast, and drive up to Portland in one day.

If it were my sister from Bulgaria, I'd skip the Napa Valley completely, head north from San Francisco through the redwoods, and then drive up the coast of Oregon, going east to Portland at the Columbia River. It's so continuously beautiful you'll never feel like you're just pushing to get to the next place. (If you decide to drive up I-5, plan to stop in Ashland, Oregon and have a picnic in Lithia Park.)
posted by kestralwing at 5:42 AM on April 18, 2009


The Behind the Scenes posts from Fred and Hank Mark America has interesting information on how to handle this sort of trip. In general, the husband and wife on this trip have specific responsibilities they've agreed on.

During the last week or so, they've been in the Southwest.
posted by jgirl at 7:31 AM on April 18, 2009


Mesa Verde is definitely worth a visit. I grew up in Salt Lake City, and went to southern utah often. Zion and Bryce are both worth a visit, but to be honest, we've always preferred Capital Reef. It isn't as showy but there are some amazing canyon hikes, and the camping has always been much better.

There was recently an article in the New York Times about the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument area which I have really fond memories of.

As for long car trips, if you are going to be camping much, take advantage of any attempt you have to shower, and given the time you have, don't be too obsessed with your planned destinations. Take time to stop and check things out. Stay off the Interstates as much as you can, but when you do, make sure you take every chance to gas up once you get town to half a tank or so. Pay attention to the small towns you pass through. Be open to changing your plans.

I don't have any tips about one-way rentals, but given the recession, I'd think you should be able to find some sort of deal if you keep looking enough. In Seattle, Budget and Avis definitely have on-airport drop-off points in town. I'm sure most of the others do too.
posted by Good Brain at 1:43 PM on April 18, 2009


I've had good luck with Carrentals.com, they have a bunch of pick-up and drop-off options in both Houston & Seattle.
posted by Floydd at 1:50 PM on April 18, 2009


I would suggest when you get to Winston, Or to stop off at this drive through Zoo.

I would also suggest that when you hit Portland, Oregon to either go: West into Washington and then take a ferry over to Seattle from Port Orchard (maybe even Port Townsend), or to go East and go through Mt. Ranier National Park and then take I-90 back West again. Of course this will add some time, but Portland to Seattle is a pretty uninteresting drive. You want to see some Washington sites right?
posted by P.o.B. at 1:23 PM on April 19, 2009


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